Druggists and garbage take over 1857 site

By M.R. Narayan Swamy
New Delhi : India may be observing the 150th anniversary of its first uprising against British rule. But one key place linked to the 1857 revolt is now a druggists’ den and a garbage dump, forcing a senior official to lament over the city’s lack of respect for its own history.

Not far away from the landmark lies a cemetery predating the rebellion. Only now it is being restored, having been vandalized and turned into a near slum for five decades, the graves desecrated and the tombstones used to build shanties.

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And in the very heart of the city, a monument where a British military officer shot dead two sons and a grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal king, looks out of bounds because of the steel barricades and concertina wire put up by police ever since a medical student got raped five years ago.

People in the vicinity of the sites – among the many where the 1857 rebellion was played out, leading to thousands of deaths and altering the history of India – say they hardly evoke popular interest.

Located in two separate rectangular parks in the middle of ever-busy Lothian Road in Old Delhi are the remains of two structures called British Magazine that served as an ammunition depot. The British blew it up in May 1857 to prevent its fall to the mutinous Indian infantry.

In fading pink and badly needing a coat of paint, the buildings are barricaded. They stand amid heaps of garbage. One structure has a miniature replica of an artillery gun on top. Otherwise, there is no sign to indicate what it is – and its historical value.

Three or four apparently homeless men at one of the parks were using a silver foil to sniff at what seemed to be cocaine when IANS visited the site at midday. Letters engraved on a gray stone tower at the spot could barely be read.

Visitors to the General Post Office – the city’s oldest – bang opposite the British Magazine were blissfully unaware of what the place was all about. But a ‘kulfi’ vendor on a pavement remarked: “It is ‘Top Ghar’ (Gun House), now an ‘adda’ (den) for ‘charsis’ (drug addicts).”

Barely 100 meters from there, towards the Red Fort, lies a cemetery that was opened in the early 1800s and which the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has managed to recover from vandals only recently.

A stray visitor to the cemetery, Mohammed Roshan, said that for decades people had illegally built houses in the enclosure, violating many graves and using the bricks, stones and tombstones uprooted from there for their constructions.

IANS found some tombstones ripped apart and thrown far from their graves. A massive excavation undertaken by ASI is uncovering more and more graves that the squatters had buried under mounds of earth.

Senior ASI official A.K. Sinha told IANS that his staff had to face death threats when they sought to reclaim ownership of the historic cemetery, the grim court battles taking almost 50 years.

“There has been so much damage at that cemetery that restoring it is proving a Herculean task,” he said. “We have to keep digging. There are many graves still buried under earth.”

But what Sinha regrets more is the disrespect many in Delhi display towards historical monuments.

“People are uncaring for their past, their heritage. People have no interest at all. No one even wants to help those who are trying to protect these places. But so many want to vandalize them.”

Sinha said he had railings built around the British Magazine when he learnt that cycle rickshaws were being parked there at night.

“But the railings got stolen,” he complained. “The problem here is if five people try to save heritage, 500 do not want that to happen. How can five battle 500?”

A few kilometers away, facing the Maulana Azad Medical College is ‘Khooni Darwaza’ (Gate of Blood), one of a dozen surviving Mughal-built gates where a British army officer shot dead Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons and grandson, in view of thousands, after the king surrendered after the 1857 revolt failed.

Also known as Kabuli Gate, ‘Khooni Darwaza’ earned notoriety in 2002 when a young woman was raped. Authorities then sealed it off to the public. Five years down the lane, that still is the case – 1857 anniversary or no anniversary.

The gates of tower are firmly shut and locked. First time visitors are unlikely to approach even its vicinity thanks to the steel barricades and concertina wire placed strategically on one side of the monument.

“Nobody ever comes here,” remarked Delhi Police constable R.S. Bhisht who is on regular attendance outside the main gate of the college. Said a college security guard: “A few foreigners do take photographs. It is more known for the rape, not for history.”

The story is more or less the same in another part of the city where British Brigadier General John Nicholson is buried. He was slain while trying to capture the city from the rebellious Indians.

This grave, near the inter-state bus station, is well maintained, a white slab stone on the grave announcing: “Brigadier General John Nicholson who led the assault of Delhi. But fell in the hour of victory. Morally wounded and died 23 September 1857, aged 35.”

But it too draws few Indians. “Kuch, kuch bahar ke log aate hain, (Some foreigners come),” said Hira Lal, a caretaker at the cemetery that is still used and where one portion is reserved for victims of 1857. “At times school children come. Otherwise there is no interest in this place.”

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at [email protected])